Illustration by Gretchen Legler

How to Tan a Beaver Hide

  1. In the springtime, beaver culture demands that two-year-old male kits leave their family lodges. And for a time, they become refugees. Crossing our roads, they are too often hit by cars and pickup trucks. Often, it’s just an accident, but I’ve heard that some drivers aim for them (or racoons, or porcupine, or muskrats, or turtles). Who would run over an animal on purpose?
  2. When you see a beaver on the road, pull over and turn on your hazard lights. If the beaver is alive, hurry him along. If he is fatally injured, but not dead, you might think about a way to shorten his misery with a swift death. If this is beyond you, consider moving the animal off the road to a grassy wet place where he might die with earth under his head.
  3. If the beaver is dead and you think that something good could come of this carnage, lift him up by his flat, scaled tail and lower him into the trunk of your car. Your car will smell like fish and blood and wet fur as you drive home—a gift.
  4. It will not be easy to separate the beaver’s thick russet fur from his body. Start by making circle cuts around the legs. Slice through the skin of the belly from head to the tail. Now carefully pull the hide away from the creature’s broken body. Notice the backbone, skull, and formidable teeth. The ears. Eyelashes. Whiskers. Hands and feet. See how muscles attach to bone, how cartilage and tendon bind them. This may remind you of your own body.
  5. Once you have undressed the beaver, you might wonder what to do with his flesh. Some people do eat beaver, of course, but you may want to return the body to a place its spirit finds familiar: the edge of water. If you leave it there among the spring grass, it will not be wasted. A fox may find it and be grateful. She may have kits on the way, and the food will make her strong.
  6. You will need a fleshing board and knife or a straight razor, or an old-fashioned drawknife. You may find these hand tools at antique stores—where pieces of useful technology related to old ways often lie in dusty bins, curiosities to our modern sensibilities. Scrape all the flesh and fat from the beaver’s hide. Be gentle around the tender ears and where black eyes once peered out.
  7. As you work the hide, you may recall some of what you know about beavers, how they are a keystone species. With their dams and lodges, they create wetlands that support entire ecosystems. One biologist has called the beaver nature’s greatest gift to humankind.
  8. After fleshing comes tanning. There are many ways to tan an animal hide. Pick one that feels best for you.
  9. Once the pelt is tanned, stake it out to dry. You might nail it to a flat board, or lace it onto a willow hoop. Once dry, you may begin to soften it. Scrape it lightly with a knife, or roll it over the edge of a board. Massage it with your hands. Or perhaps enlist a friend to gently tug it back and forth between you.
  10. You will be surprised by how alive the pelt looks lying across the back of a chair. When the morning or evening sun comes through the window, the beaver’s fur glows—like honey, like a polished maple plank, like fire, like wheat in a fall field. Around the edges the pelt is soft, like milkweed fluff, like dandelion stars. In the thick center, the fur is deep and luxurious. When you dig your fingers into it, you feel something that you can’t quite put into words. It has something to do with making the best of a bad situation, and the heartbreaking beauty of this animal.

You can read more about skinning beavers, stacking firewood, and foraging for mushrooms in Gretchen’s latest book, Woodsqueer: Crafting a Sustainable Rural Life, out this month from Trinity University Press. Woodsqueer chronicles her experiences intentionally focusing on making a life more in tune with the earth on eighty acres in backwoods Maine.





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